Women in Crisis: Covid and Beyond

It turns out that the Covid-19 pandemic is a good time as any to discuss gender bias and discrimination against women. Not because more women are at risk from Covid-19; on the contrary, the virus seems to attack more men than women. Not because more women are employed in the healthcare sector that is at the frontline of the fight against Covid either, though that is true and many of them are risking their lives for the sake of the rest of humanity.

No, it is because the pandemic-related lockdown in many parts of the world has exposed the shadowy goings-on behind closed doors of domestic life, otherwise not reported much on. It appears that since the Covid lockdown came into effect in cities and countries around the world, there has been a spike in the cases of domestic violence. It seems unimaginable, even surreal, to think that men would choose a time like the worst human tragedy to pick on their wives, companions… might even include their mothers and daughters, who knows. I suppose their explanation would include the stress – especially job-related stress – that they are going through. Except that men who inflict violence on their women, including the verbal kind, are known to be habitual abusers; they usually don’t discriminate between good times and bad times, as this recent spike clearly tells us.

Trapped in lives of our own making; Image: Freestocks on Unsplash

What’s even more telling about this piece of news is the fact that so many women find escape in going to work. The act of getting ready and leaving home every morning for office means at least 8-10 hours of respite for them. On the other hand, for homemaker wives, seeing the backs of their men as they leave home for work every morning brought huge relief. Now, the lockdown has meant that there is nowhere for them to go to, and according to this article in The Guardian, even phone helplines haven’t been able to help. Perhaps the lines are just too busy.

The other dimension of this unfolding tragedy is that while men might get away with excuses about job-related stress, what about the prospects of work for women? And here, I have to say that my country, India, has been failing its women, especially over the past decade. According to the World Bank, women’s labour force participation rate in India has fallen sharply from 32% in 2004-5 to 23.4% in 2019. As you would expect, it has fallen more sharply in rural India than in urban India, dragging down the overall figure for the country. It is a sad comment on the state of the country, because more women in rural India have worked (albeit mostly in agriculture-related occupations), than in urban India because they simply had to. In fact, it is usually said that rural Indian women work much harder than their menfolk, in the fields and at home, often trudging miles every day to even fetch water and firewood.

https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.TLF.CACT.FE.ZS?locations=IN-AF-BD-BT-CN-NP-LK-PK

The explanation for this sudden fall in the number of working women, quite paradoxically, is improved standards of living for many households, both in rural and urban India. Families (read men and their parents) don’t see the need for women to continue working, now that they don’t quite need that supplementary income. If this situation continues, what would happen to their daughters who are being educated, but will most likely also get married, stay home and have children? As long as they can afford such a life, why should women work, is their argument.

Determination to change the status quo; Image: Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

It is this kind of attitude and mindset towards women that brings me to a related article in The Guardian, which reports rising gender bias in most countries around the world. The article cites a document titled 2020 Human Development Perspectives: Tackling Social Norms, a Gamechanger for Gender Inequalities, prepared by the UNDP, which has also developed a new measure of gender bias through a Gender Social Norms Index. The report bases its calculations on the findings of the World Values Survey on gender-related questions and arrives at a Gender Inequality ranking of countries as well as two Gender Social Norms Indices that measure the depth and intensity of the gender bias.

While there is much in the UNDP report that should be questioned, including the need for, and the methodology for the measurement of, the two indices, the broader point that it makes is that gender bias across the world has worsened between 2004-2009 and 2010-2014. What’s strange is that bias against gender equality has increased more among women. And India’s position in the overall Gender Inequality Index rankings is rock-bottom: 129 out of 189 countries.

To just give you an idea of how bad things are for women, I have compiled a document comprising charts from Our World in Data on gender parity across the world and the time series findings for India from the World Values Survey, which you may read and download.

That gender bias stems from the socio-economic framework in a country, including education levels and social and cultural beliefs, was never in argument. If there is even a perceptible improvement in the GSNI index it is in education, not that that is a guarantee of a better future for women. From the late 18th century when Mary Wollstonecraft railed against a society that keeps its daughters uneducated, in her brilliant book, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that I had written about long ago on my blog, to the present day, women’s education has simply meant women being educated, in order to get married. What I find inexplicable is our collective failure to address it, across decades. In fact, with time things seem to be only getting worse.

One of the main reasons I think for our inability to create a better future for women, is that women’s issues often get clubbed together with several other development matters. It is almost as if we like to deliberately obfuscate the issue, by mixing it up with health, education, environment, diversity, poverty, minorities, LGBTQ, etc. And the fact of the matter is that many of these issues are indeed related and interconnected; that should be no reason for us to accept current conditions as fait accompli and not strive for change. For example, if one reads the UN’s SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), especially SDG 8, you find that it talks of decent work and pay for all, where women are mentioned only as one of the categories along with the poor, differently-abled, etc. SDGs in general have been developed to reduce poverty by 2030, as we all know, and to that extent deals with women as one of the vulnerable population segments. Achieving gender-pay parity in the corporate sector, for example, would not be its remit.

Need for more women at the high table; Image: Pixabay

To effect change in this context, we need representation at the highest levels which, unfortunately, is woefully low in most countries. That, to my mind, is the second reason for women’s lot not improving. A better, more equal future for women has to come from women; we can’t expect to simply stand by and wait for men to hand it to us. I, for one, find the phrase “women empowerment”, a buzzword in the corporate world, rather ridiculous; who is meant to empower us? Who, and equally what, are we waiting for?

If we women are going to be our own enemies, there is not much hope for us, I am afraid. This is one area, where trickle-down effects of policies can, and are known to work. Women politicians and policymakers will have to lead and champion the cause for change. Many policies to do with women’s rights (economic, social and cultural) require legislation, as the odds have been heavily stacked against us for generations. The injustice is in the laws themselves. Similarly, in the private sector, attitudes toward women in the workplace have to change and the leadership here as well can only come from the top. That calls for more women in senior and top management roles as well as in boardrooms.

The ILO Global Wage Report 2018-19: What Lies Behind Gender Pay Gaps reports that wage inequality is higher in lower income countries, where gender pay gaps are also wider at the lower levels of income distribution. It argues for the need for more, and better quality, data; for example, for India only mean gender pay gap for hourly wages is available, not for median in hourly wages and not for monthly earnings; that figure is an astounding 34.5%, the highest for the lower-middle income countries group. Hardly surprising since we in India don’t track and measure employment more frequently and regularly. And while the report talks of women realizing lower returns for their education and more of them working in part-time jobs, besides the motherhood gap, there is little in the report to inspire action for change. I wonder if some of the report’s text doesn’t reveal the authors’ own biases, however unconscious they might have been: explaining gender pay gaps by calling some industries “feminizing industries”, for example. I suppose they mean education and healthcare.

Women writing their own future; Image: Freestocks on Unsplash

I believe that the way forward is for women leadership in two different areas, government and business, to clearly spell out specific areas for improvement on parallel tracks. While women in government should focus on legislation to boost women’s rights (economic, social and cultural), those in business should focus on helping women advance their careers, and that should start with a firm commitment to reducing gender pay gaps. There should perhaps be legislation on this as well, requiring listed firms to report their gender pay gaps in their financial statements, as is now the case in the UK. Of course, it would take more than reporting the pay gap to correct it. I am usually not in favour of reservation quotas, but if women in countries such as Norway and others have made huge progress thanks to legislation mandating this, including in boardrooms, it might be worth considering the idea. That too must be given time to show results. Paternity leave is another idea worth considering and it would make a huge difference to male attitudes regarding their parenting responsibilities at home as well as freeing women to make their own work-related choices and decisions.

I think about how women who have been forced to work from home, thanks to Covid, are coping with their office and house work, especially since many would also have their children housebound at this time. And I wonder how many men are actually lending a helping hand with household chores, instead of beating up their wives.

There can’t be a better time for change than now. Covid-19 could just be the wake-up call we women needed. If only more of us are listening.     

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